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More power needed: OPPD plans to build Nebraska's largest solar farm, plus natural gas plants

More power needed: OPPD plans to build Nebraska's largest solar farm, plus natural gas plants

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Omaha’s electric utility plans to build Nebraska’s largest solar power farm as part of a broader green power initiative.

The Omaha Public Power District board will vote as early as Nov. 14 to seek bids to produce 400 to 600 megawatts of solar power, officials said Tuesday.

That would be roughly double the size of the state’s largest solar installation announced to date, a 230-megawatt, $230 million project proposed east of Lincoln by Ranger Power.

OPPD is still deciding whether it’s more cost-effective to own and operate the farm, or to partner with a private company to operate it.

Board Chairwoman Anne McGuire asked OPPD president and CEO Tim Burke about the project’s costs during an OPPD committee meeting Tuesday.

Burke declined to discuss costs until bids come back but said OPPD expected no general rate increase from the solar farm or related projects.

The publicly owned utility will ask bidders to propose locations in eastern Nebraska for the solar farm, Burke said. The site or sites would need access to OPPD’s transmission lines.

Burke said the OPPD installation, if built, would be the largest solar power project in this part of the Midwest.

The new investments are needed to improve the reliability of OPPD’s power grid and to ensure that the system can withstand disruptions, including from flooding, ice storms and tornadoes, said Dan Lenihan, OPPD’s director of planning and strategy.

The utility also needs additional capacity as eastern Nebraska continues to grow and large new industrial and commercial customers use more power. Several new data centers have moved to Sarpy County, including Google and Facebook.

Board member Janece Mollhoff asked about the impact on OPPD customers of adding so many data centers and high-energy users.

Burke said the cost of providing power to those users is covered by the rates the utility charges them.

Other OPPD residential and business customers are not subsidizing that growth with higher bills, he said.

To back up the solar panels when the sun doesn’t shine, OPPD also will seek bids to build new natural gas plants to provide up to a combined 600 megawatts of power.

Environmental activists, including John Crabtree of the Sierra Club and Eliot Bostar of Nebraska Conservation Voters, expressed mixed feelings about the solar proposal because of the new natural gas plants.

Crabtree said OPPD had come a long way since 2010, when its largest source of low emissions energy was the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, which has since closed.

The utility already has signed contracts to buy 1,000 megawatts of wind energy.

Bostar said he doesn’t know that OPPD had many viable options, besides natural gas, to back up the solar panels.

Currently, it’s difficult for utilities to store adequate power from wind and solar sources, which are subject to the whims of Mother Nature, to ensure stable power flows. Battery technology for that purpose is improving but not yet cost-effective.

Burke said OPPD’s new solar farm would include space to add massive batteries if the technology improves.

The solar farm is part of a wider plan discussed Tuesday by OPPD to give customers cleaner power from sources other than coal.

OPPD also discussed setting a goal of a “net-zero” carbon future by 2050.

The utility, as part of its plans for future power generation, will stop burning coal at OPPD’s North Omaha Station on John J. Pershing Drive. It will shut down three older, less efficient turbines at the plant and shift two of the plant’s more modern turbines from coal to gas.

Doing so could cut carbon emissions at the power plant by up to 80%, based on OPPD estimates.

But OPPD’s north Omaha plant, which employs 136 people, may need fewer workers after the transition. Mary Fisher, OPPD’s vice president of energy production, said she has spoken to plant employees about the job uncertainty surrounding the shift to renewable energy.

Fisher said she has told them that OPPD will work with any employees who might lose jobs to find other opportunities, in and outside of OPPD. It’s too soon to tell how many jobs could be impacted, she said.

Board member Craig Moody said OPPD has to take care of its employees in an energy industry that is changing at “light speed.”

Construction on the new solar farm and natural gas plants is expected to begin in 2020. The solar farm could be completed in 2022 or 2023. The natural gas plants could be built by 2023 or 2024.

OPPD provides power to all or parts of 13 counties in eastern Nebraska.

The utility is seeking public comments via its website on the solar proposal, as well as its new goal for carbon emissions, through Nov. 8.

Omaha World-Herald: Afternoon Update

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